In an article published in 1976 in New York magazine, author and journalist Tom Wolfe declared the arrival of the “Me Decade,” arguing, “The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold. The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self … and observing, studying, and doting on it” (1988, 143). Wolfe highlights sex and sexuality as a key component of this “new alchemical dream,” and indeed, the 1970s saw a solidification of self-help and therapeutic approaches to sex and sexuality aimed at self-exploration and personal transformation. This solidification is particularly noticeable within the booming dating and sex advice literature market of the 1970s. In stark contrast to earlier iterations of this genre, these texts helped establish a market for individually oriented relationship and sex guides that encourage the notion that sex is a constitutive part of identity formation and a critical element of self-awareness.
Given the considerable scholarly attention paid to the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s in the United States, the 1970s is often treated as merely an extension of the previous decade, or as a dramatic and unfortunate reversal of gains made in the 60s. This lack of attention to the specificity of the 1970s is troubling for two reasons. First, the 1970s was a decade of profound shifts in the terrain of sexual and gender politics in the U.S., including the two landmark Supreme Court cases Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) and Roe v. Wade (1973); the publication of William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), Shere Hite’s The Hite Report: A Nationwide Report on Female Sexuality (1976), Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex (1972), and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Women and Their Bodies: A Course (1970); [End Page 120] and the release of Deep Throat (1972). The decade was also marked by high-profile battles over the Equal Rights Amendment and sexual orientation antidiscrimination legislation; both issues generated considerable steam for what would become a powerful force in U.S. politics—the religious right and its insistent invocation of sexual and gender politics as wedge issues in the American political landscape. Second, the 1970s was a vitally important decade for specifically feminist and lesbian and gay inquiry into sex and sexual politics, in which both domains (and their overlaps) exerted considerable pressure on popular sexual discourse. To ignore the 1970s as a distinct era of sexual thought in the U.S. is to miss an opportunity to understand the legacies of feminist and queer activism and scholarship and their continuing import for contemporary sexual politics. Revisiting the 1970s as feminist scholars may help illuminate contemporary struggles around sex and their feminist and queer implications.
If the 1970s tends to be overlooked more generally, the role of dating and sex advice literature of this era, in particular, is grossly underexamined within feminist and sexuality studies, garnering significantly less attention than early- and mid-twentieth-century marriage manuals. While sales figures alone cannot help us gauge the impact these manuals had on people’s sexual behavior, the impressive circulation of texts like Comfort’s The Joy of Sex, for example, suggests that this literature struck a cultural nerve. The purchase and circulation of texts such as Comfort’s is, in and of itself, a behavior that warrants scholarly attention, particularly given that these texts had to be acquired in brick-and-mortar shops. The acquisition of guides such as these suggests a public increasingly interested in pursuing sexual knowledge, and titillation, beyond the bounds of traditional sexual and gender norms.
In this essay, I first trace a brief history of sex advice literature in the U.S., demonstrating that the 1970s literature marks a distinct shift in tone, audience, and content from the literature of earlier decades. I then examine sex and relationship advice literature of the 1970s, considering mass-market literature alongside feminist writings on sexuality during the decade in order to unearth the connections between the two domains. By closely examining 1970s dating and sex advice literature, this article sheds light on the historical development of a key arena of...